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Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the science of affection

Berkley, New York, £8.79, 352pp

ISBN 0425194051

Love at Goon Park is the biography of Harry Harlow (1905-1981), Professor of Psychology at Wisconsin University and originator of the famous – or infamous – experiments in which baby rhesus monkeys were taken from their mothers and given, instead, surrogate mothers made of either cuddly towelling or unfriendly wire mesh, with or without a feeding bottle, to see which they preferred. For this, he has become a hate icon among animal rights activists. In a fair world, he should have become an icon to anyone who cares about love, whether in animals or in people.

Childcare, then as now, went in fashions. American orphanages were once overcrowded and dirty, and children in them were twice as likely to die of infections as other children. Then they discovered hygiene; mortality rates dropped, and pundits on childcare started to warn mothers against kissing their children, letting them sleep in their beds, and other allegedly unhygienic practices. They also warned against ‘spoiling’ babies by picking them up when they cried, feeding on demand, and suchlike. In Israel, kibbutzniks put their children in the nursery to be raised communally, and individual mothering was discouraged. John B Watson, chairman of the American Psychological Association, warned, “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.” The famous behaviourist B F Skinner was adamant that animals didn’t have emotions. Harlow proved them all wrong.

Harlow’s PhD research showed that baby rats would take drinks if they tasted half-decent (cows milk, whole or diluted, sugar solutions) and would spit it out if it didn’t (quinine). If forced to, they would make do with orange juice and cod liver oil.

In his first experiments he fed the baby rats every three hours. One died of malnutrition. He doubled the feeding schedule and found they died of overfeeding. Being a parent, he decided, even a scientific surrogate, included knowing when to say ‘enough’.

He then looked at conditions that inhibit feeding. When the baby rats were too cold they wouldn’t eat. When they were too warm they just huddled down into the warmth. They needed to be cared for and coaxed. Mother rats squash their babies between their own bodies and the nest, and this helps stir up the hunger response.

He then separated rat mothers from their babies with a wire mesh with holes big enough for the babies to get through, but too small for the mothers. The babies crawled around in aimless circles but the mothers tried desperately to get to their babies. When he removed the barrier, the mothers gathered up their babies. Even if they were hungry and food was on offer, they put their mothering task first.

At Wisconsin, Harlow was sent to do some learning experiments on a baboon and an orang-utan at the Madison zoo, and that convinced him that rats weren’t complicated enough and he wanted to study primates. And, for most of the rest of his career, he did just that. He showed that baby monkeys preferred the cuddly cloth mother to the wire mother even when wire-mom had a feeding bottle and cloth-mom did not; they would cling to the cloth mother and make short feeding forays to her wire colleague.

He spent the rest of his working life studying mother love – an unfashionable subject to begin with, and abhorred by graduate students - in primates. He showed the relationship between mothering and subsequent behaviours such as fear, curiosity, courage, and problem solving.

This is a marvelous book, scrupulously researched and beautifully written. Harlow’s message, that babies needed mothering, didn’t go down well with the newly-emerging women’s movement. It didn’t go down well with the animal rights movement, either. But his research underpinned a turnaround in the way that children were brought up. The British child psychiatrist John Bowlby, whose influence was world-wide and whose book, Child Care and the Growth of Love was a best-seller for 20 years, used it to amplify his message that children need much more than food, warmth and Pavlovian conditioning.

Oh, and Harlow’s laboratory address was 600 N Park, Wisconsin. Hence the lab’s nickname and the title of this book.

Last edited: 27 August 2014 05:57

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